Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Twenty-eight years ago an enormous alien spaceship arrived on Earth and marooned itself in the sky above Johannesburg South Africa bringing with it hordes of starved emaciated refugees from a distant dying planet. After efforts to assimilate them into South African society failed the vast population of “prawns” — a derogatory nickname inspired their crustacean-like features — were herded en masse into District 9 a massive hastily-constructed refugee camp on the edge of the city that quickly devolved into a shantytown rife with violence prostitution and substance abuse.
The present-day South African government under pressure from its increasingly fed-up human citizens has decided to abandon District 9 and hand over control of the aliens to Multi-National United (MNU) a government security contractor/weapons manufacturer charged with relocating the refugees to a new camp in a more remote area.
In truth the relocation is only a secondary priority to the executives at MNU; their real goal is to unlock the secret of the aliens’ advanced weaponry and use it to reap untold profits in the arms trade. MNU’s efforts have heretofore been thwarted by a design feature on the weapons that restricts their usage to those possessing alien DNA rendering them inoperable by — and thus useless to — humans.
Tasked with leading MNU’s forced migration of the District 9's prawns is Wikus van de Merwe a well-meaning middle manager unaware of the company's true motivations. That changes abruptly however when he's unwittingly exposed to a mysterious DNA-altering substance during a routine sweep of the alien refuge camp. When Wikus begins to undergo a grotesque Fly-like transformation he suddenly finds himself hunted by his former colleagues at MNU who now see him as the key to cracking the code of the prawns’ powerful weapons. Shunned by human society and left with nowhere else to turn he heads back into District 9 where he forms an unlikely alliance with the creatures he’d once worked so hard to marginalize.
WHO’S IN IT?
Nobody you’d recognize unless you happen to be a devotee of South African cinema. District 9’s Johannesburg-born director Neill Blomkamp opted to use a cast composed entirely of actors from his home country with mostly excellent results. Leading the way is newcomer Sharlto Copley lending wit and pathos to the role of overwhelmed corporate whipping boy Wikus van de Merwe. Reminiscent of both The Office’s Michael Scott and Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt Wikus is the unlikeliest of sci-fi heroes which is one of the reasons why the film is such an unexpected delight.
District 9 takes an attractive premise and approaches it from an unconventional angle resulting in a wildly entertaining sci-fi satire that melds bits and pieces of The Fly Midnight Run Starship Troopers Enemy Mine Alien Nation and TV’s Cops. It’s a disparate combination to say the least yet somehow it works.
With the help of producer Peter Jackson and the many visual effects artisans at his disposal director Blomkamp packs the modestly-budgeted District 9 with an impressive mix of CGI and creature effects — especially during the film’s balls-out climax a mind-blowing blood-soaked battle sequence that will have audiences simultaneously cheering and cringing.
There’s little subtlety to District 9’s political commentary — a presumably deliberate artistic decision given the film’s satirical bent. Nevertheless it can get a tad annoying at times. The plot features an abundance of wild tonal shifts some of which are pulled off more successfully than others. In the lead role Copley occasionally betrays his acting inexperience by overdoing it with his delivery.
The climactic battle scene in which Wikus dons a massive Halo-esque battle suit and turns the tables on his pursuers is absolutely nuts — in a good way. However younger views and those with delicate stomachs may find the carnage-filled sequence rife with exploding heads and severed limbs somewhat unsettling.
According to producer Jackson District 9 cost around $30 million to make — a paltry sum by today’s action-movie standards. The production budget of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in comparison came in at a reported $175 million.